Whether or not I crack the spine of my Bible, I feel my way through a Psalm each day.
Some days kiss the feet of transcendence, leaving me mouthing the words of Psalm 84: “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” Other days my ache for God feels as physical as the panting thirst of Psalm 42. My toes sift greener grass on days I walk barefoot along the ground of Psalm 23, my good shepherd guiding me to pastures just beyond the valley of the shadow of death.
These days, I mostly flip back and forth between a few pages. I curl up inside Psalm 10 or Psalm 73, poems in which the Psalmist sets his troubled existence next to those who seem to effortlessly glide along life’s surface—without concern, care or a second thought of God.
The Psalmist crawls through these stanzas in time with my own woeful heartbeat. Some days, the technocrats, the fat cats, the true rich, and ruling class get me down. Measuring the span between their ease and the inequity around me, I settle into a funk.
The days I’m mostly upset about actual injus are more exception than rule. Typically I bend the spirit of these Psalms out of shape, comparing myself to people I directly orbit, people I love, good people whose lives look and sound more comfortable than mine. I sigh as I survey pictures of vacations I can’t afford. Pangs which mimic the thirst of Psalm 42 rise up around parents whose children seem easier to manage and shepherd than my own. Joy and jealousy crash into each other upon notice of surprise pregnancies in families which already enjoy multiple children. I borrow the language of the Psalms, writing my own verses:
For I was envious of the fertile, when I saw the prosperity of their families.
For they have no pangs of loss or lack;
their homes and minivans strain at the seams.
They are not barren as others are, or exposed to the indignities of fertility testing;
they are not stricken like me.
I sit, studiously calibrating the scales—ease on one side, intent on the other. I adjust and account for every degree. Rising up, it seems, are people who fall into comfort and balance; weighed down, those who invest heart and soul into every step, yet keep coming up short.
This sort of weighing and measuring finds just enough resonance in the Psalms to indulge itself, yet exceeds the bounds of holiness. Constantly comparing ourselves to others betrays some of our most cherished and closely-held doctrines.
I know my tendencies all too well—I elevate myself above others who seem to sneak into the good life without paying their dues of time or thoughtfulness. In my comparisons, I create a pyramid of good works and righteous motives few could ascend. I lean back and put my feet up on the self-justificationJesus died to free me from. This kind of comparison sets neighbor-love on a shelf to grow stale and cold. Imperfect and inclined to prop up our own perspective, we see what we want to see and collect incomplete bodies of evidence.
The Psalms deliver the promise that God actually sees with X-ray vision, correcting the record, counting and calculating with grace. He looks into the hearts and hidden hurts of kings, cool kids, and the perpetually unbothered. He also sees through our skin and scar tissue, knowing us better than we know ourselves. He is fully familiar with the blemishes which plague otherwise pure motives, and with the places where we rightly grieve the gaps between heaven and earth..
Perhaps it’s little surprise that I hear music when I read the Psalms. Not the strings and choirs that David had in mind; instead, I transpose these verses into pop’s major keys. Sometimes I close my Bible to the bittersweet jangle of a Lennon-McCartney tune—I read the Psalms today, oh boy.
When I meditate on these Psalms of comparison, and my penchant for getting tangled up in all the back-and-forth glances, I hear something more like the Staple Singers. Against velvety keyboards and crisp cymbals, the gospel legends sing “If you don’t respect yourself, ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot.” Replacing a few words, it rings even truer: “If you don’t stop comparing yourself ...”
Theology and turns-of-phrase only go so far to ease the sting of felt longing and lack. I have little to offer, except one more song. My appreciation for David and the rest of the Psalmists rests on their ability to be fully themselves—broken, bruised and desperate—yet wander back to the truth of who God is and what he’s like. Even if the words felt cold or empty, they wrote them down anyhow, knowing nothing else could satisfy their need.
And so all I have is all they had: a reminder that God sees and knows us, wherever we find ourselves—somewhere between praise and protest, comfort and misery. Maybe our pop psalm today should sound more like Sinead O’Connor’s beautiful, beseeching ballad.
With her, we lift our voices heavenward and sing “Nothing compares 2 U.” Let the song strike a chord, because an incomparable God loves perfectly and specifically, never comparing his children.